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Brenda Wineapple…[an] intelligent and often lyrical first novel
—The New York Times
This is a powerfully rendered debut about an infamous moment in American literary history: Henry David Thoreau accidentally starting a massive fire that burned 300 acres of woods near Concord, MA, in 1844. Significantly, this happened just a year before Thoreau removed himself from society, built his cabin, and began work on his masterpiece, Walden. Pipkin does an excellent job of bringing the people and environs of historic Concord to life. There are three other major characters in the novel-an orphaned Norwegian farmhand, a Puritan-style preacher, and a bookseller and aspiring playwright-and each ends up influencing Thoreau in some significant way as they fight the fire together. All are skillfully drawn. The novel ends just days after the fire, with the young Thoreau humiliated and the people of Concord outraged, and Pipkin suggests that responsibility for this fire is what drove Thoreau into the woods and into deep reflection about nature, self-reliance, and living. A fascinating fictional exploration of a seminal American event.
“A brilliant first novel. . . . It crackles with heat and energy, as we see these characters tested by the flames, scorched by their passions, beliefs, and hopes.” —New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Marvelous. . . . In this compelling homage to an iconic American writer, Pipkin may himself have just written a new American classic.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Wonderfully grandiose…. Pipkin's portrait of a nation in flux is energetic and optimistic. It's also a remarkably constructed piece of fiction—vibrant, solidly plotted and lyrically yet efficiently composed—and should be a contender for the year's important literary awards.” —The Boston Globe
“Infused with moments of genuine drama, peril and suspense. Woodsburner is . . . an exemplary illustration of how fiction can illuminate the past, bring history to life and make it feel as fresh and relevant as the present day.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Woodsburner is Pipkin's first novel, but, with its complex structure and top-notch prose, there's not a page that reads like the work of a novice…. The result is, well, transcendent.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Readers will be pulled inexorably toward the heat ignited by the fires of each character's story…. It is a book that will keep you up all night racing toward the last page, and then will leave you longing for more.” —Jackson Free Press
"A mature historical work by a writer who happened upon a small footnote in American history and fanned a flicker into an imaginative, complex novel that humanizes an American icon.” —San Antonio Express
“Pipkin's characters are full of convincing contradictions. . . . The author has some thoughtful things to say about the notion of American freedom, and the conflagration that serves as Woodsburner's central metaphor allows him to say them in language that is at once vividly precise and richly allusive.” —NPR.org, Summer Books “Best Fiction” feature
“What a terrific tale John Pipkin spins! He has taken a dramatic episode in the life of Henry David Thoreau and transformed it into a gripping and profound work of fiction.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Witty, bawdy, philosophical, touching, and humorous, Woodsburner is a novel I didn’t want to end . . . This book is packed with interesting ideas, vital characters, and vivid writing.” —Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits
1. In Walden, published ten years after the events described in Woodsburner, Thoreau writes, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How are the characters in Woodsburner leading lives of quiet desperation before they encounter the fire?
2. How does each character in Woodsburner pursue the American Dream? Does every character find it?
3. Why is it so difficult for Oddmund Hus to relate to other people and form friendships? Why does he avoid confessing his love for Emma Woburn, even before she is married?
4. Is the romance between Oddmund and Emma a traditional love story?
5. Is Emma more independent and self-assured than the other characters? Why do you think she agrees to marry Silas?
6. What contradictions seem to shape Eliot Calvert’s view of the world? Are his troubles the result of external conflicts, or are they the result of his own conflicting desires?
7. At the novel’s end, do you think that Caleb Dowdy finds the answers he is looking for?
8. Do Anezka and Zalenka come to America for the same reasons that attract some of the other characters? How is their view of the New World’s promise similar or different from the other characters?
9. What role does redemption play in the novel? Which characters find redemption and where do they find it?
10. What does Thoreau’s experience with the fire suggest about the abundance of natural resources in the New World?
11. How does Thoreau’s fire serve as a catalyst for change in each character’s life?
12. What do the events in Woodsburner suggest about the influence of cause and effect in the development of individual lives and of American history?
13. This story takes place in 1844, but how are the challenges faced by these characters relevant today? Are the lessons they learn still applicable in the modern world?
14. What parts of Thoreau’s life, as described in the novel, did you find surprising? Did the novel change your view of Thoreau in any way?
15. A little more than a year after the fire, Thoreau’s builds his famous cabin at Walden Pond so that he can live alone in the woods. Do you think that the fire in 1844 influenced his decision in any way? How?
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Posted June 13, 2009
I didn't expect to like a book about Thoreau. After all, I had to wade through his Walden Pond in high school! But this Thoreau is different, although still the same person. And this book is not just his story, but the story of a bunch of other quirky & messed-up characters. And the insane day (a historical fact) when Thoreau accidentally started a huge fire in the woods near Concord. What you really want to know is: I couldn't put this one down!
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Posted August 7, 2009
If you are genuinely interested in the event partly depicted in "Woodsburner," the fire accidentally set by Thoreau and his friend Hoar while preparing to stew fish, as well as the place of this event in Thoreau's life and its psychological effect on Thoreau's subsequent choices and his literary work, then you will want to take the time to read Richard Lebeaux's two volume biography "Young Man Thoreau" and "Thoreau's Seasons." If there is a reliable short cut to the understanding Lebeaux provides, which is doubtful, "Woodsburner" certainly is not it. If you are interested in insight into Thoreau's imagination, Robert F. Sayre's "Thoreau and the American Indian" (inexplicably out of print last I checked) is indispensible. On the other hand, if you were one of those students who resented being required to read some Thoreau - "Walden" or a few of its chapters - but instead read only a few sentences and partially listened to class discussion, "Woodsburner" may be the book for you, placing as it does Thoreau among several deviants and pathological bums. But if you came to the book hoping for the kind of "good read" fictional biography can supply, I would recommend instead Brian Hall's "Fall of Frost." Like "Woodsburner," "Fall of Frost" is centered on an actual event in the poet's life, his diplomatic visit to Russia, but unlike "Woodsburner," "Fall of Frost" easily and interestingly contextualizes the event in the constellation of Frost's whole life and work, rather than "deconstructing" a richly rewarding writer and individual.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 14, 2009
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Posted August 4, 2010
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Posted September 22, 2009
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